Published April 23, 2016
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Yep. Here we are, like it or not, you’re stuck with me, Michael Phillips, and another smash and grab episode of THIS IS NOT A TEST. That beloved bastion of bewilderment, nattering nabob of nothingness, the living embodiment and epitome of…epilation. Epilation? You know what epilation is? It’s a fancy word for ripping hair out by the roots. About a million years ago I had a girlfriend whose sister bought this thing called Epilady, for taking the hair off your legs. I was over at their house when my girlfriend said, “Let me try that,” and she turned it on and touched it to her leg – just for a second – and just screamed and turned it off. “That’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever felt!” Her sister just shrugged and kept using it.
The thing was just a heavy, twisty spring that caught your hairs in it and ripped them out. It wasn’t scientific or modern – it wasn’t anything, really, except a spring hooked up to an electric motor in a pretty plastic case. So that’s what epilation is, and I couldn’t tell you why that particular word bubbled up into my consciousness just now. Maybe my legs are getting too hairy, and my subconscious is telling me I need to do something about it. But I ain’t going anywhere near an Epilady, I’ll tell you that. When I was laughed at that girlfriend for shrieking when the evil machine touched her, she turned it on and jammed it against my arm, and she was right, it was the most horrible thing I’ve ever felt. Well, not the most horrible. Not by a long shot. Wasn’t even the most painful thing she ever did to me. But it was no fun. The things we do for beauty, am I right?
Speaking of ladies, epilated or otherwise, I’ve been listening to the new P.J. Harvey record, “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” and I thought it would be kind of cool to try to review it here. But I’d have to play bits of it to do that, at least I think I’d have to play bits of it, and I don’t think I can do that without stepping on miss Polly’s copyright, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to step on anything of Polly’s because I think she might cut a bitch. I’m not sure if there’s any kind of fair use for music excerpts the way there is for written work. I don’t know, and I don’t really want to do it badly enough to go try to learn about those kinds of things. Or learn what disinformation the Internet has to offer.
My second thought was that maybe I’d use like a one second sample of each song – just a short blast of noise – which may or may not have been funny. I mean the first time. I know it wouldn’t have been funny the 10th or 11th time. So that was out. But then I thought, do I really want to review an album anyway? Reviews are stupid. No one ever bought a record based on a review and no one ever stayed away from a record based on a review. Okay, I’m generalizing again, I’m sure someone has. And you know what, they got what they deserved. Who would take some hack writer’s word on what records to buy? Who would listen to a writer about anything? Absurd. We accept record reviews as an established thing, but if you look at it objectively, they’re completely pointless.
People decide which records to buy based on a lot of things. Mainly hearing the record, or bits of it, or liking another record by the same artist. Or maybe a friend who shares a lot of the same musical taste recommends something. Or you buy a record because you like the cover or the singer’s pants, or the label it’s on or you’re trying to impress a girl. There are a million reasons. When I was a kid we’d buy records that had the “Rock Steady” management logo on them, because that logo was on KISS records. Now there’s not much logic there – I guess it’s perfectly good logic for a 15 year old – but we actually found good records that way. Along with a couple of real jive turkeys of course (I’m looking at you, Angel…Helluva Band? I think not). But as dumb as buying a record based on a logo might seem, it’s even dumber to buy one based on a written review. Or a spoken review, I suppose.
Who are record reviewers? What qualifies someone to do that job? Do you have to be a musician? Nope. Musician reviewers are very rare. I don’t know of any, but then I don’t really keep up with the exciting world of written record reviews. So you don’t have to be a musician…do you have to work in the record business? No! If you did, no one would trust that your reviews were impartial. Ha – sure, okay, impartial. So you don’t have to be a musician and you can’t work for a record company, so it must be that you have to work at a recording studio. A pressing plant? A guitar shop? No, no and no. The only qualification you need to be a record reviewer is an opinion, and a mailbox big enough to hold all the free records you’re going to get.
Some people like to go back and read reviews of the first albums by bands who eventually became famous, as a kind of sport. But it seems like the whole point of doing that is to find reviews where the reviewer “got it wrong.” Where they gave a big thumbs down to a band who went on to become famous. But those reviewers weren’t “wrong.” Since when does disagreeing with the masses make you wrong? More often than not it makes you right. So that guy in Rolling Stone who dissed the first Led Zeppelin album, or the dude in Crawdaddy who just typed LOL over and over again as his review of the first Van Halen record – those guys weren’t wrong. That’s the beauty of a job like music reviewer – you can’t be wrong.
I said music reviewer and I meant record reviewer. Because a music reviewer reviews live music too, and you can be wrong where that’s concerned, and you can be right. A live show can suck hard enough to not be open to interpretation. And bands who can put out acceptable albums can be horrible when you stick ’em on a stage. And the opposite is true too. Some bands “burn up harp and tear off house top” when they play live, but they can’t make a good record to save their lives. Those are two different skills, so someone who reviews live music shouldn’t be compared to a record reviewer, if we’re being fair. I don’t know why we’d start being fair now, but let’s just assume we are.
When I was in my early 20s, or maybe even late teens, and ironically, just as VCRs were coming on to the scene, Siskel and Ebert got really famous for reviewing movies. Just in time for people to stop going to them as much as they used to, those two guys came along with their thumbs up or down and their bickering and barely concealed pulsing undercurrent of homoeroticism. Okay, maybe they didn’t have that, and maybe they did, who am I to say? But they came along and became ridiculously famous for watching movies then telling you whether you should go see them. So what? You might ask, and so what? I might answer. But again, if you look at it objectively, what sense is there to a movie review? One goofball’s trash is another goofball’s treasure. One man’s thumbs up is another’s one in the stink.
It doesn’t matter even a little bit what the dearly departed Siskel and Ebert thought, it doesn’t matter what Robert Christgau thinks, or Lester Bangs or the stoned punks at CREEM who were insulting everything, regardless of label or genre or management logos. It only matters to those people what they think. It means nothing to you or me. Fucking Robert Christgau and his consumer guide – the “dean of American rock critics” – holding court at the Village Voice in New York for the past 75 years. Oh dear, so important. Jesus christ. Jesus Christgau. You’ve seen his consumer guide, it gives records a letter grade, like the report card you always had to hide from your father. Here’s what he had to say about it, “I don’t write about something till I’m pretty sure how much I like it, and I’m skilled at recognizing when that is.”
Well thank god he’s skilled at recognizing when he likes something. But that about sums it up for you. The most revered and respected pop music critic in the country is laying it out for you, telling you what you need to compete on his level. He’s given you the keys to the kingdom, man. You have to be very skilled at recognizing when you like something. There you go. Now all you have to do is hone that unique and unusual skill yourself and you too can be a music critic. And your opinion will be just as valid as Christgau or any other schmoe writing or talking about music anywhere in the world. You should write him a thank you letter for that.
What I guess I might be saying here – well, what I’m absolutely sure I’m saying here – is that Rock and roll doesn’t need a dean, rock and roll doesn’t want a dean, rock and roll laughs at the dean, flips him the bird and cuts out of school early. The idea of pop music “criticism” is ridiculous any way you slice it. It’s like doing graffiti criticism, or free jazz criticism. Some things just exist and they’re beyond criticism. I said that the beauty of being a music reviewer is you can’t be wrong, but the music they review can’t be wrong either. You either like it or you don’t. You like it or don’t. And if you don’t like it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. And vicey versa, if you dig what I’m laying down. If you smell what I’m stepping in.
What is “criticism” anyway? It’s just someone going on about the “artistic merit” of something. Where it fits in the pantheon of whatever. Analysis, dissection, death. What is the goal of criticism? Of critique? It’s all meant to categorize and explain, file away. It has nothing to do with creation or art. Criticism is not an art, even if it’s written and you want to say writing is art in and of itself. Music critics do not create art. Book critics do not create art, movie critics, Amazon website reviewers…what is any of that? Well, some Amazon reviews I’ve read could qualify as art. And they’re all more relevant and useful than a record review. I’m just not sure what a critic hopes to achieve. Or what a “critical study” does that makes it worth anyone’s time or consideration. Just don’t get it.
So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be reviewing any records around here. It was a bad idea anyway. I’d have to listen to a record a hundred times before I could even think about talking about it in a non-musical way. And really, I don’t know if I could even do it then. All I could tell you was that something was great or not great, in my opinion. Then I’d say, go listen to it and see if you like it. See, I’d be a lousy reviewer. I’d put all the work onto you. That’s kind of a good angle though. I’ll have to see if any papers here in Los Angeles need a record reviewer. I’ll write about any kind of music they ask me to, and every review will end the same way, I’ll say, “I don’t know, you should probably listen to it yourself and make up your own mind.”
It’s an interesting path to meander down in your mind though, thinking about what made you buy the records that you bought. What makes you a Kansas fan and the next person an MC5 fan? What’s the difference between the two of you? I’m not sure there is much difference. I think a lot of it is an accident of birth and location and availability. Or it used to be. For the purposes of this part of what I’m saying, just assume that you can’t buy any record ever made from your seat on the bus. Pretend you live wherever you lived when you were 10 years old. Maybe it was a big city, but most likely it was somewhere else. Some not big city. So what you could buy to listen to over and over was up to the people who ran the two or three shops around you that sold records. And what makes them order the records they order? Well, partly past experience with what sells and partly what the record companies tell them to buy. Or what the record companies pay them to order. So essentially we bought what the record companies paid for us to buy.
So let’s go down even further. You’re probably going to walk in to that record store with another person. Your friend. So who are your friends? What are their backgrounds and tastes like? Because they’re going to influence you too. If they’re all listening to Slayer or Megadeth, they aren’t going to sit still while you play Brian Eno records. They’re going to kick you out of the club. But maybe you really want to listen to Brian Eno records, but all the savages in your town are too simple to grasp Eno’s obvious genius. Then what do you do. You either become the weirdo, or you forget all about Brian Eno, put on your denim vest and get into the van to go out to the fairgrounds and see Metallica. Or megaman or monster size or hell death or maybe a triple or quadruple bill with all those bands. That’s what you’re probably going to do, because being the weirdo is difficult. To be the person who sets the taste in any group rather than following it, you have to be strong. You have to be the person everyone else looks to for social cues, like clothes and music, and very few of us were that person.
Then finally, when your musical taste was being cultivated, you probably lived with your parents, or some other adults, and they will likely have had some influence over you too. Whether it’s screaming at you to turn down “Here Come the Warm Jets” or playing their corny music that you can’t stand but later in life will come to embrace because you find it nostalgic because they implanted it into your brain through repetition at a young age. If they are really jerks and hate your music enough they might even take it away from you or not let you play it when they’re around. All of those various and variable and completely uncontrollable things conspire to make us into the kinds of music consumers we become. We believe we’re unique and free, but as we learn over and over again, we’re not.
But maybe you were different. But as unique and wonderful as you think you are, it turns out you weren’t the only one listening to something. And when you move to a bigger city you learn that not only weren’t you the only one listening to something, but everyone else listened to it before you did. In the end, it all seems to boil down to nostalgia, doesn’t it. People buying the same records that they bought 20 or 30 or 60 years ago. I know, some of you continued to listen to new music as you got older, but most people stop buying new music around the time they get into a career or a marriage. Well that doesn’t leave a lot of meat on the bone for the music critic, does it. Doesn’t leave them much of an audience. Shut-ins and prisoners, mainly. And college campuses. But not here, so don’t you worry about that. At least until I change my mind.
Well, well, well, well, well. A few hours ago I got the news that Prince died. Our Prince, not those pasty spawn of British nobility. The real Prince, he died. He was only 57 years old. I just read the other day that he’d been sick, but they said it was the flu, and he even showed up on stage at Paisley Park a few days ago, telling everyone he was fine. Then, poof. Gone. Just like that. Charles Bukowski said, “We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” I think in terms of living life well, Prince has us all beat, so maybe death did tremble. This one is a shock though. I always expected Prince to be releasing new albums when he was 90 years old, you know, big grey afro and some weird Egyptian flute jazz or something…the sounds of cows eating grass…I don’t know, something. I just assumed and figured and took for granted that he’d be there.
I could talk about Prince for hours, but I should probably get something in here now, jam it into this episode while the shock is still palpable. After it sinks in I won’t want to talk about it, about him or his music. Not for this, anyway. The number of Prince records we’ve got stacked up over here is second only to the number of Wailers albums. In other words, it’s a lot. I’ve been listening to his music for a long time. Living in the twin cities I read about this kid Prince, this protege, this diminutive genius, here and there in the local weeklies, but for whatever reason I didn’t pick up on his first record. In 1980 though, I walked into a record store and was greeted by a 4 or 5 foot square poster of the Dirty Mind album cover – him standing there looking at you in his underpants and trench coat, with the backdrop of bedsprings, you know the one, and I just thought, “What the fuck is this? If the cover looks like this, the music must be insane,” so I bought it, took it up to my apartment and stuck it on the turntable, and yes, indeed, the music was insane.
It probably doesn’t seem insane now, in retrospect, but back then it sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. It sounded like nothing else most of the world had heard. It was fresh, it was crackling, it was ansty and insistent and took you by the collar and testified. Other bands had rocked up their funk, sure, but Dirty Mind was so stripped down and raw and rocking and funky that it was in a league of its own. You know the story after that, you know how it went, he released Controversy, then dropped the double LP 1999, and we thought, well damn, Prince is famous now, because everybody seemed to have a copy of 1999, and he had his first hit with Little Red Corvette. Even though it seemed like everyone knew Prince after 1999, when I heard they were filming a Prince movie at First Avenue, I thought, well, that’s cute and I figured that everyone in the twin cities would go see it and that would be that. Of course that wasn’t that, and the mainstream success of Purple Rain really surprised me. I think it surprised a lot of people.
Maybe because to me Prince was always punk rock. 100%, no doubt about it. I knew that for a fact when I saw that cover for Dirty Mind, never mind what the music sounded like. Here was a guy who clearly and unapologetically didn’t give as much as one fuck. He didn’t just fly his freak flag, he put it on a rocket and sent it into space. I think it’s orbiting still, probably right next to the International Space Station. And he drove the punk rock point home years later when he had a beef with his record company and walked around with the word “SLAVE” written on his face for about a year. Then, of course he stopped calling himself Prince, until he could get out from under the legal bullshit with Warner Brothers, and everyone thought he’d gone and lost his damn mind. But he hadn’t, he was just a punk.
About a week or so before he was On Saturday Night Live for the first time, early in 1981, I met him on the street in Minneapolis. It’s funny, because even that Saturday Night Live appearance was weird. I don’t think they even announced beforehand that he was going to play. There was another band on the show that night, and he only did one song, Party Up, off of Dirty Mind. He rocked that out, did a mic drop and he was outta there. Classic. The audience seemed to be stunned. Like they didn’t know what to make of what they’d just seen and heard. Anyway, a week or so before that happened I was walking from the bus stop to the building where Sonny Vincent and the Extreme rehearsed. It was an 8 or 9 story office building on the same block as First Avenue. An old brick building that must have been hard up for tenants, since they took us. But apparently when we played you could hear us down on the street, because that night as I rounded the corner to the front of the building, I practically knocked Prince over into the street. He said “Whoa!” and looked at my guitar case and said, “That your band that plays up there?” I said yep, yep, whatever, it’s cool to meet you, love your records, blah blah, and he just looked at me and said, “a-ight then,” and split.
Anyway, I got to see a lot of Prince shows in those days, and I think we may have even taken him for granted a little bit. I remember hearing about a last minute Prince show one night, and I didn’t even bother to go. Oh, it’s just Prince again. But usually if I heard he was playing, I went, and the coolest show of his that I ever saw was one of those unannounced First Avenue gigs. He played with his band for a while, then the Time played, but Prince played drums for the Time’s set. I didn’t even realize that he was drumming for them until halfway through their second song, and I was like, wait a minute, is that Prince? Yep. Later he played guitar for a couple songs behind Sheila E, then put down his guitar and strapped on the bass for a couple songs. A bunch of other people I didn’t even recognize came and went, trading instruments, trading bands, doing each other’s songs, doing each other’s hair – it was crazy and loose and it went real late. Near the end of the night I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m just standing here watching this like it’s no big deal, this is kind of crazy…”
But that’s the end of that I guess. It’s always strange when a musician dies because you still have their music, so it’s like they aren’t even really dead. That’s LP or CD immortality, I suppose. Will people remember Prince in 200 years? Will they still listen to his music, or Bob Marley’s music? Jimi Hendrix? John Lennon? Hard to say, isn’t it. We still listen to 200 year old music though, don’t we. Some of us, that Classical Gas 8-track in your grandmother’s car. Your dad’s old Switched On Bach LP. Or even some more faithful renditions of the classical composers. You know, the boring ones without synthesizers and drum kits. We still listen to it, but it’s hard to imagine someone sitting down – or levitating or whatever they’ll do – in the year 2216 and listening to “Cold Turkey” or “Darling Nikki.”
But for the foreseeable future, and for sure for the rest of my life, people will be digging in to the hundreds of songs that Prince wrote and recorded and left for us. So yeah, people will listen, animals will strike curious poses, and we’ll all purify ourselves in the waters of lake Minnetonka. Come back next time, why don’t you. Critique me. Write a paper, do a study. Dream, if you will, a picture. Arrivederci, brothers and sisters. Go have a popsicle. See you later.